Once upon a time, half a world away, I could speak French. I was never close to fluent, but seven-year-old "bonjours" developed enough to pull through GCSE; fortunately for me, the exam papers never took a detour via the Business studies department.
However, as the years flew past, so too did the verbs, nouns and phrases. Soon, even a 'bonjour' sounded alien to my ears. The words on Parisian signposts were faintly recollected, but the sentences never formed. Several months ago, upon overhearing a french conversation in a coffee shop, I had the impulsive idea that I wanted to relearn this most beautiful of languages. Surely I could pick up where I left off? As it turned out, it's not quite so simple. Moreover, this realisation prompted a far more sobering one.
I am currently in language school twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It is a school that 25% of people are familiar with. It is, equally, a school open to stigmatisation and misunderstanding. The subject is mental health recovery.
I am trying to recover from the mental illnesses that began, coincidentally, around the time I stopped learning French. Over six years in a world where self-worth is targeted by every waking moment. In this world, the sunny continent is a world away from continual storms of doubt, fear and anxiety. Revision timetables are blood sugar readings, calorie totals, bus journeys and unanswered texts. These number games make GCSE maths papers therapeutic by comparison.
Furthermore, each time I try to refocus my efforts on recovery, the standard is that much higher. A simple greeting is now as difficult to me as the dreaded subjunctive tense of my Spanish A Level. Bus journeys and milky lattes, once second nature, cannot be found in the dictionary of mental illness. I am learning to walk again and past experiences are scarce to be found.
Last year, the destructive language of anorexia and anxiety grew stronger than ever before. Feeling powerless to answer saw me, ultimately, choose to suspend my studies at the University of Exeter and began inpatient treatment. It was here, amidst recurrent thoughts of failure, that a nurse offered me the perspective behind this post.
"You are fighting some of your biggest demons six times a day. It is the hardest battle you will ever fight, but it is a battle worth fighting. If you can do that, a degree is easy by comparison."
To those on the brink of graduation, I do not underestimate your achievements! On the contrary, I am still filled with a sinking feeling of inadequacy. It is an emotion that is a frequent occurrence in the school of mental illness. Since my discharge from hospital, almost two months ago, I am still learning to employ self-help strategies. It is a work in progress, but each day I am trying.
On reflection, inpatient is like the recovery equivalent of an intensive language course. You are pushed - both physically and mentally - to limits you never knew existed. Yet you also have the support of professionals, trained to take you there. It literally taught me how to eat again. How to recognise a normal portion. It forced the hand of my macronutrient fears, which were catalysed by a clean-obsessed society. However, it is not a magical fix. At some point, you have to teach yourself. Like the move from school to University, it is then down to you.
Since my reunion with "real world speak", it is a daily test to find my voice. Somedays, this can be managing a bus journey without wanting to cry. Today it was getting my lunch with no one there to prompt me. In recovery recover, a slice of pizza doesn't make you better, just as a few choice phrases don't make you fluent in a language.
I remember preparing for my Spanish AS exam with a book of idioms, including "Estar más sano que uni pera" - to be healthier than a pear. On reflection, the subject of the pun was quite ironic; nonetheless, my exam plan was to throw it into my essay, whatever the subject, slightly overlooking the fact that the rest of my Spanish could never keep up. This idiom is the pizza. Suffice to say, it takes more than one slice to make you healthier than a pear.
Fluency is pursued one bite at a time; you can't expect too much, something I have to remind myself when I grow inpatient with my own progress. Imagine you are faced with an untranslated copy of Madame Bovary, one week after your first French class? Your face is my internal reaction, each time I see or hear the phrase "just eat a burger". For now, I am contenting myself with the prospect of a Macaron date in Paris, with enough phrases to place my order.
Recovery is a step-by-step process. You are trying to recollect a world that seems utterly alien, where the simple act of ordering a coffee can require as much rehearsal as a final Drama performance. The "skinny latte" line has been in your head for every Starbucks trip in memory. When you answer your emails, social anxiety turns it into a French listening exam. A social gathering is the oral test that no revision can fully prepare you for.
For those of you taking exams right now, I have been there and wish you all the best of luck.
For those of you in the recovery school - whatever stage - I am there and wish you the strength to keep going, one day at a time. Also remember that you are not alone; mental health affects 1 in 4 individuals. Every step forward, however small, is significant.